Unravelling Digger Yarn-Spinning in World War I

By Seal, Graham | Journal of Australian Studies, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Unravelling Digger Yarn-Spinning in World War I


Seal, Graham, Journal of Australian Studies


The yarn is often portrayed as a unique aspect of Australian vernacular culture. It features heavily in the folklore of the pioneering past, told by and about such mythic characters as swaggies, shearers, bullockies and all sorts of other `blokes'. The yarn, at least as usually presented in published anthologies, is an icon of naive nationalism, clearly reflecting misogynism, some of our prejudices and our fonder forms of self-delusion, notably anti-authoritarianism and the `fair go'. These features make the yarn an ideal object of cultural analysis, particularly when the social group that originates and circulates such expressions is as well-delineated as the members of the first AIF (Australian Imperial Forces) -- `diggers' as they came to call themselves and be known sometime after early 1917.

A great deal has been written about the digger, from the viewpoint of history and his central mythic status in Australian culture. For the purposes of this exercise the essentials of digger culture, as it developed between late 1914 and up to the end of the great war in November, 1919, can be summarised in the following terms.

The digger self-image that was essential to the camaraderie of a fledgling, male military grouping bearing the weight of national aspiration. It was also an essential aspect of the persona of that group projected to the world at large specially to other allied forces, notably the British and, after 1917, the Americans. The `world at large' also included most members of the AIF above the rank of NCO (non commissioned Officer), with a significant exception noted below. The AIF was, as a body, sharply conscious of its status (or lack of it) as Australian, volunteer I.C. non-professional soldier), colonial larrikin egalitarian. Despite its role as an army with a strict hierarchy of power, members of the AIF considered themselves members of a diffuse, ill-articulated but definite folk `republic'. The tenets, moralities and self image of that republic were contained in many aspects of digger culture, including language, song and verse.(1) It was nowhere more clearly expressed, though, than in the anecdotal form -- in digger yarns.

Digger yarns carry a powerful charge of nationalist sentiment, usually expressed in xenophobic mode, and reverberate with central elements of Australian myth, including anti-authoritarianism, (apparent) self-deprecation, larrikinism and `bad' language. These yarns were told to part, to teach a `truth' and so bolster individual and group morale. They were also told to reflect and so reinforce the assumptions and attitudes to life and death that underpinned the culture of the digger. Frequently such anecdotes were humorous, having the additional value of raising a laugh m decidedly humourless situations. Digger yarns were -- and are -- almost infinite in variety, variation and intent, though most of those discussed here recur frequently in the discourses of digger folklore and literature.

The major themes of digger yarns are digger nonchalance under fire, general Birdwood, anti-authoritarianism, contempt for 'tommies'in general and British officers in particular, Australianism, self-deprecation and the emblematic and colourful Australian speech. As with other areas of digger expression, such as verse and song, there are some significant absences from the themes of digger yarns. Generally the favourite yarns are silent on the topic of mateship, sacrifice, duty, loyalty unless satirised) and tales about 'Simpson' and his donkey.(2)

Study of the provenance of digger yarns and of their persistent themes and concerns, also provides insight into the self-image of the digger during and after the war. While most of the yarns included have been sourced to the 1914-1918 war, or earlier, their provenance frequently exceeds (and sometimes precedes) the period of the war and the period of this study. The typical modes of transmission of this material include privately circulated typescripts and manuscripts, limited circulation publications and periodicals of various kinds, as well as oral transmission. …

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